What’s the deeper meaning behind Namaste and Charansparsh?

By Dev Nadkarni

Namaste or Namaskara

The act of joining the palms of the hands in front of oneself is known as Namaskara or Namaste. It is with the Namaskara that people offer prayers to deities and also greet each other throughout India. It conveys reverence, respect, welcome, friendship and hospitality.

The Namaskara is perhaps the most ancient form of formal personal greeting, much older than the handshake. Its antiquity is not easy to gauge, but the Namaskara has been represented even in the earliest of sculptures. The etymology of the words Namaskara and Namaste are relatively easier to deduce. “Namaha” in Sanskrit is “obeisance” and “Te” is “You”. Therefore Namaste is “obeisance to you”.

The palms are among the most expressive parts of the body. They are used to great effect in conveying moods and emotions in Indian classical dance. The various positions of the palms and fingers as they convey emotions and moods are called Hastamudras. Namaskara is among the most commonly used Hastamudras.

The manner of holding the joined palms conveys much. The head bent forward with the tips of the fingers touching the forehead and the eyes shut conveys deep reverence. The palms held slightly lower with the base of the thumbs in line with the solar plexus and the head bent forward ever so slightly conveys both greeting and welcome. Here, the intensity of the accompanying smile adds to the degree of the warmth conveyed.

The joined palms raised way above the head could convey farewell and palms similarly held high with the forearms sticking to each other till the elbows could convey a sigh of relief at the end of an ordeal or a departure of a particularly troublesome guest. The last one, of course, is not performed in front of the other person –it is always behind his or her back! The Uddanda Namaskara is holding the palms farthest from the top of the head while lying flat on the floor face down in front of a deity or god.

In addition to all these variations, each individual adds his or own little personal characteristic to the Namaskara. It may be a wave of the palms, a shake of the head, or a distinct manner of smiling while doing the Namaste.

The most-accepted socio-anthropological explanation for the genesis of the handshake may hold good in the case of the Namaskara too. Baring one’s hands and putting them in front of another individual conveys the fact that the person is unarmed and therefore is a friend and comes in peace.

Charanasparsha

Wisdom, unlike knowledge, comes only with age. This has been recognised since ancient times in Indian culture. It is for this reason that older persons are revered. A younger individual must respect the older one. It does not matter that the older person is poorer in knowledge, economic or social status. The sheer fact that the older person has “seen many more rainy seasons” is enough for a younger person to pay respect to him or her. This is the central sentiment behind the act of Charanasparsha, or touching an elder’s feet.

Those feet have traversed more places, trod through the many landscapes of life. There is no doubt that travel is one of the greatest educators. It takes one through so many environments, situations, and exposes one to so many ideas that it can only add greatly to one’s wisdom. Feet being the basic mode of locomotion, it is rather apt that one pays respects to one’s elders with Charanasparsha.

An elder may touch the feet of a younger person in the event that the younger individual is a spiritually advanced, holy personage. Long after a holy personage has passed away, his or her Paduka or footwear is often worshipped for generations. Almost no other possession is revered as much as the Paduka, which indeed, is the extension of the Charana or feet.

There is a school of thought that sees Charanasparsha as going against the belief that all individuals are equal. The act, therefore, is seen as self-demeaning. But apart from the beautiful spirit behind Charanasparsha and ethics, the very act may be hardwired into our behavioural pattern.

Bending before a higher ranked member of a group is a common mode of paying respect or acknowledging authority in several species of animals, particularly the primates. It is common practice for primates in the lower social order to bend before the acknowledged leader of the group and many times fall on the floor with the haunches raised. The pecking order among hens is a variation on this theme. Going down on one’s knees was also a manner of acknowledging authority for several centuries in the western world. And it is common practice to bend completely before god almighty in the practices of several religions.

Charanasparsha continues to be a practice much in use and is one of the common factors that run through all the religions of India.

 

First appeared in Indian Weekender, November 2011

A cup to drown New Zealand’s sorrows in

By Dev Nadkarni

At last there’s something for Kiwis to cheer about. Last month’s victory over France to end the 24 year wait for another Rugby World Cup win was indeed nail biting to the very end, even pyrrhic some would say, but it was a win all the same. And a win is a win is a win, even if it is only just.

New Zealand and the All Blacks needed it. Badly.

In many ways this year has been eminently forgettable for the whole world. There has been little to cheer as a slew of disasters of both the natural and financial kind – not to mention bloody political turmoil in many parts of the Middle East – unfolded with such metronomic regularity.

New Zealand had one of its worst years in recent memory. The country has never seen a natural disaster on the scale of the Christchurch earthquakes, which resulted in the loss of more than 160 lives and loss of assets running into billions of dollars. The aftershocks continue and some 7500 of them have been recorded since the big one on February 22.

Then there was the Pike River disaster, which took 29 lives. A succession of financial disasters that led to the bankruptcies of a number of high flying investment bankers and the liquidation of their organisations, put thousands of Kiwi “mum and dad” investors out of pocket.

And smack in the middle of the seven week long Rugby World Cup event that brought some 100,000 overseas visitors to its shores, a container ship, the Rena, ran aground on a reef on the picturesque Bay of Plenty, causing one of the worst maritime environmental disasters the country has ever seen.

So, the Webb Ellis cup will indeed be the cup that cheers all of New Zealand – and will, in all likelihood, be enough to help the rugby mad country to wash away all the year’s accumulated sorrow.

For a team that never in the history of the Rugby World Cup lost a single pool match, the All Blacks’ record in quarters, semis and the finals of the tournament ever since it won the inaugural one in 1984 has been disappointing. But this year, their convincing semis win over the Wallabies convinced most Kiwis and All Blacks fans all over that the Cup was in the bag. The French, though, put up a tough show and kept the All Blacks and their fans on tenterhooks till the final whistle.

The big win comes at a crucial time for New Zealand. For later this month, on the 26th, the country goes to the polls. Prime Minister John Key’s National Party led government has been wildly popular and is expected to win fairly easily, going by the lead it has maintained over its rival Labour Party in successive opinion polls over the past year.

A few months ago, a group of psephologists working from several countries published an academic report that found an overwhelming correlation between a country’s national team winning an important, major sporting event and an incumbent government being re-elected in a poll – if the poll was held close on the heels of the winning sporting event.

By that reckoning, the All Blacks win assures the National Party a happy romp home on November 26. But in any case, the party’s position was so much ahead in the opinion polls, that even an All Blacks loss at the finals would not have affected the result greatly.

As things stand National has virtually no opposition – which is an extremely undesirable scenario in a democracy. One hopes that after the November election Labour will hopefully get its act together, have an effective leadership in its forefront and prove a worthy parliamentary counter to the ruling party.

Labour has failed in projecting an image of a party that is solidly behind its leader, Phil Goff. It has a serious crisis of leadership and has shown extreme paralysis in dealing with it. Quite obviously, the strategy of the second line of the leadership has been to treat this election as a lost cause and hope for better traction in the years to 2014 – until then let Phil Goff lead and become the obvious fall guy after this year’s election.

The policies that it has come up with so far, too, have little to draw supporters of the ruling party to it. But whatever sparkling policy Labour comes up with in the little time that is left until the November 26 polls, there is little ground it can cover to close the gap with National.

If it wins this months election, National’s second term will probably be far more eventful than its first. On many important issues it has more than soft-pedaled, even going slow on its 2008 election promises, despite the overwhelming mandate. It is likely that boosted by its re-election it will be tempted to bring in its cherished policies too fast in the second term. A meaningful, vigilant and strong opposition can provide a strong counter.

Meanwhile, the win will doubtless bring back confidence at all levels as the country moves into the high spending season that is Christmas. A boost in confidence and bigger spending in the run up to next year, will undoubtedly be good for the economy, if it could be translated into growth.

Social scientists and economists are predicting a spurt in spending and there is one study that says there will be a mini baby boom nine months from now – just as there was one nine months after the country won the world cup the last time in 1987.

The feel good factor is often the most important energisers that will set the economic ball rolling faster in any country. And New Zealand has plenty of it since last month’s win – even if it continues to borrow close to $400 million every week to pay its bills.

The nation has been so preoccupied with the Rugby World Cup that nobody has paid enough attention to other matters of importance. For instance, the response to the public submissions to Auckland City’s thirty-year strategic plan was so poor that the last date has been extended.

Similarly, with less than a month remaining for the elections, the campaign heat is only just building up. The political parties will find it hard to catch the attention of the celebrating Kiwis over at least the next couple of weeks.

Undoubtedly, the win is exactly what the doctor ordered for New Zealand.

 

First appeared in Islands Business, November 2011